Berlin Inspires DC: Parks and Passages Exhibit at Goethe-Institut Washington
"We live on the surface in DC and it’s exciting to think about going deeper." –Washington Parks & People Executive Director Steve Coleman
Enlarge image "The Wall on the Mall" panel shows the many places in Washington, DC where original pieces of the Berlin Wall can be seen. (© Germany.info) Washington, DC is undergoing rapid change. As one thousand new residents move to the city each month, a dramatic demographic shift is fueling the development of new neighborhoods, parks, and transportation systems, redefining the very being of the capital of the United States.
Amidst the towering cranes and dust from pounding jackhammers, could a “poetic interlude” help DC and its residents find a way for creative redevelopment? Can “adaptive re-use” of existing structures provide space for a flourishing cultural scene? Can DC glean inspiration from another federal capital where artistic energy helps the process of coming to terms with a complex, multi-layered past?
These ideas find expression in a new exhibit at the Goethe-Institut in downtown Washington this fall, Parks & Passages, which examines possible approaches for redeveloping the Dupont Underground, a 75,000-square-foot abandoned streetcar tunnel directly beneath Dupont Circle, with ideas and inspiration from Germany’s federal capital, Berlin.
“Creativity is pragmatic”
Enlarge image Built as a trolley station, the Dupont Underground also served as a fallout shelter until it was closed off in 1975. (© Lucy Burnett) The exhibition is the result of the work of four research fellows of the DC-based arts-and-social-change organization Provisions Library —interactive artist Edgar Endress, artist James Huckenpahler, architect Pam Jordan, and scholar Paul Faber—who spent several weeks in Berlin over the summer creatively investigating the city’s approach to urban re-imagining.
A metropolis with multiple “pasts” and identities given its complex history, Berlin is full of parks, buildings, and public spaces that have been repurposed in ways that preserve historical memory. The Provisions researchers examined spaces and structures across the city-state, including the Spreepark, a former amusement park, and the former Tempelhof Airport, just a few miles from the city center and larger than Central Park, which is now transitioning to a mixed-use future through a prolonged phase of “pioneer, interim-use” development including urban gardening, concerts, mini-golf, and a wide array of recreational activities.
Enlarge image Wind-skating is one popular activity at the former Tempelhof Airport, which ceased operation in October 2008. (© picture alliance / dpa) The transformation of an unused tunnel under one of DC’s most popular gathering places into a vibrant arts destination may seem far fetched right now, but the not-for-profit Arts Coalition for the Dupont Underground is actively seeking input for generating ideas and support for the project. If it can attract enough private funding and a high level of interest by the end of 2012, the Arts Coalition will be able to go forward with next steps, including securing an official lease from the city.
The astonishing success of the Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed High Line park in Manhattan, now the third-most-popular attraction in New York though only open since 2009, provides one prominent source of inspiration for the would-be transformers of the Underground. Imagine a similarly vibrant, interactive space where nature, art and people converge, beneath Dupont Circle: a “Low Line” for DC?! But the Arts Coalition has also drawn inspiration from other places in London, Sydney, and Saint-Nazaire, France, as well as the Zollverein former coalmine industrial complex in Essen, Germany: a UNESCO World Heritage Site (see right column).
Enlarge image Side-by-side maps of Berlin and Washington give a sense of the relative scale of the two cities. (© Germany.info) More inspiration can be found at the Goethe-Institut exhibit, where visitors will find a “creative space for thinking through questions” of urban interventions, as Provisions research curator Stephanie Sherman put it. One display, “The Wall on the Mall,” shows a possible walking tour in downtown Washington to several places where pieces of the Berlin Wall can be seen today, from the Capitol rotunda, to the Newseum, to Johns Hopkins SAIS.
Another wall features maps of Berlin and Washington with 32 sites investigated in Berlin by preservation architect Pam Jordan. Out of her recordings of the experiential qualities of the buildings, Jordan developed a glossary of “strategies of continuation,” the list intended to “spark debate about what ‘preservation’ really means.”
Likewise, interactive artist Edgar Endress’s sound-and-light installations and “graffiti journal,” updated every two weeks, challenge conventional ways of thinking. Inspired by Berlin’s layers of graffiti—“it’s like the city is talking to you”—Endress engages in a process of multi-layering, embracing the open-source idea. “Nothing is precious, everything can be re-thunk, re-composed,” he says.
Another part of the exhibit includes a fascinating timeline of large-scale newspaper clippings from the Washington Post, related to the Dupont Underground. Those wishing to gain a sense of the colorful past of this place through often amusing stories, part of the broader context of DC history, will find a treasure trove going back several decades.
Enlarge image Martin Pallgen, project developer of Berlin's "Tempelhofer Freiheit," formerly Tempelhof Airport, presents its urban re-use concept at the opening event, Sept. 13. (© Germany.info) Parks and Passages is but one part of a series of events, films, and workshops fostering the Berlin-Washington dialogue this fall at the Goethe-Institut Washington. The “Rediscovering Berlin” program, also coinciding with the celebrations surrounding the 775th anniversary of Berlin’s founding in late October, also includes the “Berlin: City of Reinvention” film series and a performance by Turkish-German DJ ipek ipekçioglu at U Street Music Hall. Further happenings include a choral performance in the Underground, urban gardening workshop, and a Happy Birthday, Berlin! electronic dance party at the Goethe-Institut.
The focus on Berlin in Washington even caught the attention of Berlin marketing campaign “be Berlin,” which is among the sponsors of Parks and Passages. “Washington inspired by Berlin?” said a representative of the campaign. “It’s also the other way around!”
If the “poetic interlude” achieves its aims, it may be to show that a city’s “being” can involve a sense of “becoming.” As Provisions fellows’ investigations of Berlin and Washington show, interim use and temporary urbanism can contribute to an “evolutionary conversation” that allows for flexibility and adaptation in the public sphere.